Pacific storm: Russia-Japan tension rises over Medvedev’s visit to Kuril Islands

President Dmitry Medvedev is now the first Russian leader to visit the Southern Kuril Islands in the Far East. His trip sparked an outcry in Japan, with the country’s prime minister describing the visit as ‘regrettable’.

Four islands of the archipelago have long been a bone of contention between Russia and Japan, with both countries claiming them to be part of their territory. Because of Japan’s territorial claims, Russian leaders in the past had been reluctant to visit the islands.Medvedev first announced his desire to visit the Kurils a month ago. In response, the Japanese Foreign Ministry issued a statement, warning that if such a trip took place, it would seriously endanger Russian-Japanese relations. It is believed that after the strong statement from the Japanese side, Medvedev had no other choice but to visit the islands.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry reacted immediately by summoning the Russian ambassador in Tokyo for clarification.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has called Japan’s reaction to Medvedev’s visit “unacceptable”.

“This is our land. The Russian president has visited Russian territory, a Russian region. We have explained this to our Japanese partners. Today we’re going to invite the Japanese ambassador here in Moscow and we will make a clear statement to reaffirm our position unequivocally,” Lavrov announced at a news conference on Monday.

Following his visit, Medvedev posted a photo of Kunashir Island, calling it “a pretty Russian sight”.

Baby boom

One of the major arguments from the Japanese side is that Russia has such a large territory that it does not really need four tiny islands, especially if it takes rather poor care of them. Despite their beautiful nature and rich mineral and biological resources, the Southern Kuril Islands have been neglected by Soviet and Russian authorities for many decades.

For this reason many Kuril residents have long been feeling almost abandoned, but President Medvedev stressed the strategic importance of these territories and made it clear that his goal was to turn things around.

In an interview, Medvedev pointed out that the situation has changed for the better in recent years: with new housing and social infrastructure.“This is good as it is improving living standards and giving hope that they can reach the same level as the mainland within a reasonable time frame. Obviously, it is a remote part of the country, but still the opportunities that people have there should be at a decent level,” he added.

Early on Monday, the president arrived on Kunashir Island, where he met the locals and visited several construction sites and public institutions.

Kunashir is the largest and the most populated island, being home to almost 6,500 Russian citizens. Together with three other Pacific islands, it was taken over by the Soviet Union 65 years ago, but the tussle to define its national identity still goes on.

There is a big cross standing on the shore of another Kuril island of Shikotan. It appeared a few years ago, soon after the Russian Orthodox Church opened its parish there.

After decades of seeing its population dwindle, the island is now in the midst of a baby boom.“We have the highest birth rate in the entire Sakhalin region,” said local Orthodox priest Father Dmitry. “We have lots of young people, lots of servicemen, officers. Their living standards are quite decent nowadays.

Building the church is part of the Russian government’s efforts to raise living standards on the Kuril Islands. It has helped reinforce national identity. All but abandoned in the 1990s, the island saw a large influx of Japanese charities and officials trying to persuade the locals that they might be much better off if the islands were under Japanese administration.

The dispute over the Kuril Islands, known as the Northern Territories in Japan, has always had a third party involved. It was the United States that encouraged the Soviet Union to take them over in 1945 and it was also Washington that later backed Japan’s territorial claims. However, many Japanese see both Russia and America as occupying forces.

Japan has two issues: one is a territorial claim to Russia, and the other is to get rid of American military bases on Japanese territory,” said Victor Pavletenko of the Russian Academy of Science.

Russia suggests putting the problem aside and trying to develop cooperation, said Dmitry Babich, political observer from RIA Novosti news agency.

When relations improve, there’s a possibility for compromise on a lot of issues,” Babich told RT.

Watch the full interview with Dmitry Babich

Japan’s reaction can be explained by the desire of the Japanese government to play a tough hand in foreign policy, given the dire economic strain in which Japan finds itself, believes Viktor Linnik, editor-in-chief of Slovo newspaper.

“That kind of assertiveness on the part of Japan is untimely on the eve of the visit [Medvedev plans to visit Japan in two weeks]. There are more pressing issues for Japan to deal with, like US military presence in Okinawa, now 65 years old – that could be dealt with a lot more positively and successfully for Japan,” added Linnik.

Watch the full interview with Viktor Linnik

Georgy Toloraya from Russia's national committee on Asia-Pacific security explains that Japan has recently quarreled over territorial issues with all its neighbours. "We remember well the row about the Senkaku, or Diaoyu islands. Now Japan has instigated this scandal about the Kuril Islands."

Toloraya believes the Japanese stance on territorial issues is connected with its internal politics. "Tokyo wants to get support from its constituencies. Rethinking of Japan's external strategies is also underway. Hence, the government of Japan is inclined more to conflict than to compromise," he says.

Watch the full interview with Georgy Toloraya

Political analyst Vyacheslav Nikonov said there is no sign of a diplomatic solution to the dispute in the near future. "There should be strong political will on both sides, but when the Japanese parliament or the Japanese government says that the islands are theirs period, that means that they leave no space for diplomacy. I do not think there is much in terms of economics about the islands. That is not critically important for Japan, which is quite self-sufficient. It is a political symbol. There are few political symbols in Japanese policies. Japan has territorial quarrels with every single neighbor."

"Every Japanese, not just politicians, but most of them, probably think that the islands are theirs. In Russia, of course, people just do not understand, why Japan, a country which was allied to Hitler, which fought against our allies like the United States, the United Kingdom, China, should be rewarded by giving up the islands which were taken away after World War II," Nikonov said.

Watch the full interview with Vyacheslav Nikonov

Although under international law the Kuril Islands unequivocally belong to Russia, Russian officials on the trip reiterated that they are open for dialog with Japan over the status of the islands. Russia keeps sticking to the provisions of the 1956 agreement that included the possibility of handing two of the islands back to Japan. However, Japan is not ready to accept these terms, claiming that all four islands should be returned, which has always seemed too much to ask for Russia.